ANTWERP PORT HOUSE
ZAHA HADID MULTI-FACETED JEWEL
There is a scene, often imitated, in the Sci-Fi movie Independence Day when a vast alien spaceship breaks through the roiling clouds to descend effortlessly and hover over a city. Nothing good follows for the film’s characters, Zaha Hadid’s brilliant and dramatic repurposing of the Antwerp Port House has created something of the character of a massive alien ship hovering. However, everything that follows has been good.
Is the Antwerp Port House Modernist? Perhaps not, but the city loves their Zaha Hadid building, which is a coup as Antwerp has the reputation for being conservative and old-fashioned.
In Zaha Hadid’s untimely death in 2016, aged only 65, the world was robbed of a great (female) architect long before she exhausted her ideas. On the curve of the docks in Antwerp, Belgium sits one of Hadid’s last commissions, the Antwerp Port House.
A convert to the Russian Suprematists way of thinking would instantly understand the building with its great planes of light and diagonals cascading into one another. Though to a modern viewer, it is a perplexing statement, albeit an elegant and whimsical reminder of the possibilities of Hadid’s mind.
Entering an architectural competition to win the commission, Zaha Hadid and her team were tasked with keeping an old fire station that lay on the site intact. Ironically, her first building to come to fruition was a working German fire station. However, it didn’t work, because the environment was simply too mind-bending and discomforting for the firemen. Lessons learnt, she spent $62 million and set about making sure that the solid Victorian structure she encased functioned as well as her brooding new extension with glass that’s held aloft with powerful steel encased columns.
Huge in scale the sheer amount of glass circling the structure means the interior is theatrically lit up by the weather patterns. In the same breath, the glass casing is monumental and also gossamer-like. It is no simple geometric object but a complex mathematical sum of faceted windows.
Many think the design for the Antwerp Port House must have been inspired by Antwerp’s long involvement in the diamond industry, but those involved in the work deny this. Antwerp is still one of the world’s most important ocean traders and the extension to the Antwerp Port House is perhaps a ship, its prow pointing to the sea, its bow cutting through a winter sky.
The interior doesn’t disappoint. There are echoes of Eero Saarinen’s TWA flight centre, the interior has an almost organic feel, like its grown, budded from the trunk and boughs of those great, uncompromising columns. Up one goes in a panoramic lift, leaving the original building behind sealed by a glass roof pierced by those reassuring black pillars and one enters a vessel, self-sufficient to meet every need during a voyage. The corridors stretch on, all around the extension, straight but with a geography of movement following the dynamic design of the extension, a geometric object that doesn’t fall within the description of any shape I was taught about at school.
From some views, the extension leans over into a wind, from others it seems thrusting at the sky while from the inside the windows are each like a monitor viewer over a city made small by the height.
Across most pictures of the interior and exterior, the supporting columns obtrude. They’re a constant reminder of a deep muscularity required to achieve the suspension of the extension with such elegance.
Beating gravity has a price and we are reminded of it all the time. Excess seeps from every corner and crevice of this structure, from the quantity of steel used to the mosaic of cut glass windows. Hadid spent until the 1990s designing structures that failed to be built so perhaps having gone for so many years without feeling this sense of fruition Hadid struggled with the reductionism sometimes necessary to build a brilliant design.
Our thanks to Reinhard Byl and the Port House and the Port of Antwerp for their great kindness and the opportunity to visit the Antwerp Port House.